Looking on the Bright Side for the Future

When Jared Silver writes, it’s frequently thought-provoking, enlightening and worth considering.

This is a very interesting piece he’s written for Edu Surge that puts the argument that as the internet becomes readily available to anyone anywhere in the world, so, we are entering a new human revolution that will unlock human potential at levels we cannot even imagine.

EduSurge – The Impending Human Capital Revolution

His evidence for this is the rarity, historically of Indian or Chinese Nobel Prize winners – because the people in those countries didn’t have the same access to knowledge and education compared with those in more developed nations. Now that the internet is freely available everywhere, so everyone can have access to all of human knowledge.

The first issue I would have with this argument is that by no means does the internet contain all of human knowledge or even most of the best knowledge. I think we’re a very long way from that and will continue to be for a long time. For one, even if we think of new knowledge that is published in books. At most, people give access to snippets of it online in order to entice more people to buy the books. They’re not about to give it all away for free. Secondly, there are vast parts of the world’s population who have severely restricted access to the internet, with large parts of knowledge placed behind curtains where they are not permitted to go. Laws and rules that restrict access can all too easily be imposed on people in any part of the world, justified by nebulous concepts like ‘national interest.’

As highlighted by Daniel Kahneman in ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ there are different kinds of thinking (engagement with knowledge) that lead to advances in human development. Whilst the internet and ubiquitous accessibility might give greater potential for the fast and shallow kind of thinking, it gives little scope for the slower, deeper forms of thinking. For that deeper thinking, people need access to the kinds of written material not generally accessible through the internet (at least for free) and access to other thinkers and experts in the chosen field with whom to share thoughts and ideas. On the latter point, email and ability to ‘find’ experts has had interesting implications. I recall a meeting and discussion with Dr Howard Gardner in which he slightly ruefully acknowledged that today he spends a far greater proportion of his time responding to speculative communication that he receives from people all over the world who want to tap in to his knowledge and insights. There is serious risk that this heightened level of accessibility makes his work less whilst giving little benefit in the enhanced knowledge of those corresponding with him – considering that the vast majority will still only be engaging with him at the most superficial levels.

One thing that Jared Silver’s article doesn’t really make clear, is whether he sees this human revolution emerging because a few more exceptional people will be able to emerge because of their newfound access to knowledge, information and each other, or whether he actually foresees an overall raising of all intellectual levels of all people. If he’s arguing for the latter, I’m really not sure that his examples about Nobel Prize winners are convincing proof as these people are by their very nature the exceptional, rarest of the rare.

If you walked in to most western school classrooms (or those in more affluent private schools anywhere in the world) and asked students what the internet changes, gives them access to most of their answers would relate to social networking and gaming. There is a strong argument to say that, especially with its addictive qualities, the internet is far from fueling an intellectual step forward for mankind, but rather giving him new and previously unforeseen ways to fritter away life on meaningless, addictive and compulsive activities. This is at its worst for those receiving a lot of unfettered access in their youth when the wiring of their brains predisposes them towards addictive and compulsive activities that give them repeated doses of dopamine and other neural ‘drugs’ that have nothing to do with enhancing mankind. instead, like the Soma of Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ it dulls the mind, eats up their time in ways that don’t challenge or move them forward intellectually and keep them limited in their advancement.

This has become of such concern to some educators that it leads to news articles like this recent one from the UK:

The Times – UK – Your Teacher’s At The Door – He Wants Your Xbox

Some years ago i had the privilege to host as a guest in one of our Delhi schools the great economist, CK Prahalad (who I suspect if not taken from us too soon was destined to be a future Nobel Prize winner). over coffee before and after the event we had conversations ranging over a wide array of topics. The one that has always stuck in my mind was his fears and apprehensions for the youth we worked with. The new young elite of India whose parents were all too frequently the first generation in their families to taste real economic success. he saw them suffering from a disease he described as “Affluenza” – an infection of plenty that undermines motivation and drive when these young people are growing up with all opportunities handed to them with ease and lacking the drive and the need to strive that marked out their parents’ generation. Such a level of complacency is more likely to lead to short cuts than hunger to use and access all possible information and knowledge that is accessible in the world.

The workings of human motivation, drive and the inclination to purpose have been areas of fascination to many (Daniel Pink – Drive, Roy Baumeister – Willpower, Viktor Frankl – Man’s Search for Meaning, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). Just because opportunity is available to people, doesn’t mean they will take it, grasp it or see it as important. People’s aspirations and feelings of what’s possible or what are realistic and meaningful life goals are not simply shaped by exposure.

For example, ten to fifteen years ago, there were plenty of eminent experts who suggested that the growth of the internet would lead to new and greater levels of cultural understanding, empathy and recognition of common purpose amongst people of the world. The argument was that knowing people from all over the world, being exposed to them, understanding more of their culture would reduce fear, animosity and distance. however, as we see a wave of nationalism, protectionism and inter-cultural and religious sabre rattling, it’s clear that there is still just as much potential for people to be divided on ethnic, racial, religious or nationalistic lines as there ever has been.

In conclusion, the possibility that future Nobel prize winners might be more evenly distributed throughout the world doesn’t, in my view, automatically add up to a human revolution. Access and opportunity don’t change things on their own. Whilst i can agree that intellectual and knowledge accessibility may contribute to greater equity in the world, there is no rule that says a rising tide of accessible knowledge will raise all boats.

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India @ 75

When I was at TSRS one of my most memorable privileges came in late 2007 when we had the privilege to host the visit of the late C.K Prahalad who addressed the senior students and staff. His theme that day was his project on India @ 75. He did me the honour of mailing me a copy of his powerpoint presentation afterwards.

On that day he spoke for close to an hour and took questions from the floor for another half an hour as he laid out a vision of what India has the potential to be and achieve by 2022. This wasn’t some pollyannish pie-in-the-sky, but reasoned economic argument accompanied by the caveats and warnings about what will need to change in the country if the potential is to be realised.

Not surprisingly, education, both academic and vocational and on a massive scale and with new and innovative thinking figured highly in his priorities. Over tea and coffee afterwards he acknowledged to me that one of the risks already evident was what he termed “Affluenza” – an infection of those who have already ‘made it big’ in the country and their family members. Instead of innovating and continuing to strive in the way that lead them to achieve, they rest on their laurels, focused on preservation of their elite status instead of playing their part in raising the benefits for the entire population. He was also cautionary about the social, political and economic risks if the country fails to grasp the opportunity and move ahead. I can’t help thinking that if he had not passed away in 2010 he would have been less than excited about what’s happened in the 6 years since he set out that vision.

I was interested to see that there has been a major drive in the last week to take the India @ 75 concept forward with a big launch held in Mumbai with the backing of some figures from business and film industries:

Indian Express Article on India @ 75 Launch

Ultimately, this is an idea that can catch on, but it will be nothing without the commitment across the population to a more ethical, moral approach towards progress and a common shared understanding that active citizenship is incompatible with using all means, fair and foul, to grab the biggest slice of the cake for oneself. To be a true citizens movement people will need to learn to act as citizens.

here are two videos of CKP setting out the broad outline of his concept;

CK Prahalad – RIP


I was deeply saddened this weekend at the passing of one of the great iconic figures of management, Dr CK Prahalad. CKP was someone who probably did as much as anyone to infuse self-belief and determination in the Indian business community to excel in the world on their own terms, in their own ways and with their own methods, strategies and approaches.

I first became aware of his work when he co-authored a book with Gary Hamel in the mid-1990’s, ‘Competing for the Future’. Though he had made his home in the US he never tired of returning to India. When he came in 2008 it was mainly to do a number of presentations with CII on his concepts of India@75. In May that year, he took the time to come to our school and addressed around 750 senior students and staff.

Here are a few of the obituaries published today, followed by the content of the email I sent to CKP just after his visit to the school.

Hindustan Times
Vindi Banga, Unilever in TOI
India Summary
Arun Maira in Business Standard
Economic Times – Special Report
Ajay Piramal in Economic Times
RK Krishna Kumar in Economic Times

I should like to thank you most sincerely for sharing so much of your time with the staff and students of The Shri Ram Schools in Gurgaon on Friday last week. The buzz and debate regarding your talk has still not died down and I believe it will be a long time before it does.

I believe that your India@75 message is one that is going to increasingly resonate with young people in the country as time goes on. Right now I sense there are many who wonder whether they dare to believe the message you are conveying, especially when they see how things are around them, in the present.

There has also been much discussion regarding the ‘ifs and buts’ that you outlined. There is no question that some things have got to change massively in the country for your vision to materialise. These things are all possible, but I sense that many struggle to reconcile the responsibility that they, as individuals, will have to take to bring it to fruition – and, of course, the underlying message – fail to make those changes, accept a far less palatable future, but blame nobody but ourselves.

For me personally, you have given a great deal of food for thought regarding the roles that we must play as educators in the coming years to facilitate the real potential of India@75, whilst also dealing with such ailments as the ‘Affluenza’ and cynicism that can put so much of the potential at risk. As a school, we are also very keen to explore the active role we can take in the environmental improvements that you explained are so vital for sustainable development.

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